The India Cable: Govt, Jio See Conspiracies by Anti-National ‘Gangs’, Rivals 

Plus: Woman who fell foul of new UP law on inter-faith marriage confirms miscarriage in custody, Ambani takes hit from stir, Anna threatens to join it, Priest king and shivering gods

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
December 15, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

UK Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has urged UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab to raise human rights concerns related to the protests by farmers in India in talks during a visit to New Delhi scheduled this week. This follows a weekend of demonstrations expressing solidarity with the farmers in different parts of the UK. Davey said that while agricultural reform policies are a matter of Indian domestic politics, the use of “militarised police” against the protesters was of concern as India must uphold its “own democratic values and respect human rights”. 

Over 30% of women suffered physical and sexual violence by their spouses in five out of 22 surveyed states and Union territories in the country, according to the National Family Health Survey-5, with activists and NGOs fearing a higher rate during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 500 nurses from AIIMS in Delhi went on an indefinite strike from Monday afternoon over long-pending demands, including those with regard to the Sixth Central Pay Commission and against contractual appointments.

Hell hath no fury like an ally scorned. Shiromani Akali Dal President Sukhbir Singh Badal said that under the BJP-led government, the country “had seen a dangerous slide into an increasingly autocratic and unitary system with growing centralisation of power in a few hands.”

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine if a “simplictor declaration” that the Emergency of 1975 was unconstitutional would be feasible or desirable after the passage of 45 years. A rather precious pursuit, given that urgent pleas about electoral bonds, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the abrogation of Article 370 languish on the cause list of their Lordships.

A 104-year-old Assam resident died fighting to prove his citizenship. When Chandradhar Das fled East Pakistan in the 1960s, he was declared a foreigner and put in detention in March 2018. After securing bail, the order declaring him a foreigner was set aside, but he still could not prove that he was Indian. 

For the first time since the 19th century, Buddhist monasteries of the Nynmapa and Kagyu sects in Sikkim will not organise the famed Khagyad Chaam, a traditional mask dance, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mask dances are performed by monks every year in various monasteries in the state during the Bhutia festival of Losoong (New Year), and are watched by thousands of devotees and tourists from all over the world.

Apple has launched an investigation into Saturday’s violence at Wistron’s factory in Karnataka, which makes iPhones and other electronic products. Meanwhile, the average usage of smartphones by Indians is estimated to have gone up 25% to almost 7 hours a day, driven by the need for entertainment and working or studying from home.

And 67 years after they were grounded by nationalisation, the Tatas have filed an expression of interest to reacquire Air India, founded by JRD Tata. The government must be quite relieved. 


Anna Hazare threatens to join protests, farmers apologise for public inconvenience

“Farmers’ best interests in mind, open for talks”: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said, after remarks about India being ahead of China in terms of ideas, but sidestepped the question of restoring the status quo ante in Ladakh. Reports are coming in from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala of protests being organised by farmers’ bodies. The Agriculture Minister has claimed that he will meet “pro-farm bill” unions today, whatever they are. Anna Hazare – whose anti-corruption stir in 2012 helped seal the Manmohan Singh government’s fate –  has leapt into the fray by writing to the Agriculture Minister that he would join the strike if farmer issues are not resolved. 

With some key roads blocked for several days now due to their protest against the three new agri laws, an umbrella body of farmers apologised with “folded hands” to people for the inconvenience caused to them, but said they were carrying out the demonstration “out of compulsion”. “Blocking roads, causing inconvenience to the public is not our aim,” read their pamphlets. 


Ambani hit by farmers’ stir, Adani on a roll 

A mark of success of the farmers’ protest is the worrying assessment by CII about its impact on the Indian economy. That should force the Modi government to relinquish its adamant stand, but having drawn the economy into a recession, it may no longer matter to it. The farmers’ call to boycott Jio has also sent the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance group scurrying to TRAI, complaining about rivals Airtel and Vodafone. It said that both firms are running a “vicious and divisive campaign” against it, making claims that migrating Jio mobile numbers to their networks would show support to the protests. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have dismissed the charge as “baseless”. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has also derided the central government for “blaming gangs and anti-national elements for these protests,” instead of listening sympathetically to the very real grievances of the farmers. 

With a fortune valued at $32.4 billion, Gautam Adani is India’s wealthiest person after Mukesh Ambani, who has dominated the headlines for partnering with major Silicon Valley brands. This year alone, stock surges have added $21.1 billion to Adani’s net worth ― even more than Ambani’s gain, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.


Foreign investment in telecom at an all-time low

Excluding investments in Reliance Jio, foreign direct investment in telecom has plunged. The first two quarters brought in $16.7 billion but excluding Reliance Jio, it is a paltry $7 million. Competition is needed to attract foreign investment. Serious disquiet about the Ambani-Adani duopoly, like that raised by South Korea’s chaebols, is expressed in the farm unrest, too. And the retrospective assault on Vodafone cannot be forgotten.


Sticker shock drives vaccine choice

Price-sensitive India will not buy Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine, selected by the UK, the US, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Israel and Canada. It costs $37 per dose, compared to $10 for the Russian Sputnik V, while indigenous vaccines ― Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Zydus Cadila’s ZyCov-D ― are expected to be priced in the $3-6 per dose range. Some quantities of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, made by the Serum Institute of India under WHO’s Covax scheme, would be available to India at $3 but the price for the balance will have to be negotiated by the government. 

Infectious diseases specialist Gagandeep Kang reckons that India would need a vaccine that costs 50 cents or less per dose (she had spoken of a 30 cents ceiling earlier) for its mass vaccination programme. This also matches the official view that initial funding requirements for the vaccination drive would be fulfilled by the budget allocated in the current fiscal for health and family welfare.

The electoral rolls will be used to identify priority recipients of vaccination. The Centre has sent out operational guidelines to states and Union territories, which speaks of only 100 recipients per session per site. Only pre-registered beneficiaries will be vaccinated, by priority. India is just short of 10 million cases, and is at number four in world rankings presently, in terms of new cases.


Time of death unestablished

There is a serious difference of opinion on the Line of Control in Kashmir. The Army reported that two soldiers had died in a ceasefire violation by the Pakistan Army, but the Hizbul Mujahideen has claimed, backed by a video, that its snipers killed them on November 27. If there is a discrepancy, it should be taken very seriously.

A mix of defiance, frustration and resignation during elections is all too familiar in the Kashmir Valley, but the current direct polls for village councils are unusual even by Kashmir’s stormy standards


The Long Cable

India’s Priest King and His Shivering Gods

Siddharth Varadarajan

Two events this past week tell us a lot about how far India has regressed in the past decade. 

The first was the ‘bhoomi poojan’ for the country’s proposed new parliament, where Narendra Modi, in his capacity as Prime Minister of India, presided over a 15 minute Hindu ritual and then described India as the “mother of democracy”. 

The second was the decision to provide the statue of ‘Ram Lalla’, or baby Ram, at the proposed new temple in Ayodhya, with blankets and a heater. “We have installed a blower heater in the makeshift temple to ensure that the temperature is under control and our deities do not suffer in this cold. Along with that, the deities have been given warm clothes and have been covered in a blanket ... we will keep thinking of any other way we can ensure more comfort to the deities,” the head priest was quoted as saying.

Blankets were seized by the Uttar Pradesh police earlier this year when they were brought to the streets by citizens protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In New India, only idols made of stone and metal have a fundamental right to warmth.

I will leave aside the debate over the ghastly design of the new (and unnecessary) parliament building, which is part of the equally ghastly and unnecessary makeover planned for the heritage zone Central Vista in Lutyens’ Delhi. Nor will I revisit the debate over the unnecessary temple in Ayodhya, to be built on the ground where the Babri Masjid stood for 450 years before it was demolished by Modi’s party and parivar men. Instead, I would like to reflect on what these events tell us about how far the Hindu Rashtra project has progressed and the irrationality that this ‘Hindu Nation’ is going to inflict on the people of India.

Do not be fooled by the multi-faith blessings that followed, where all of India’s major religions were represented. The televised bhoomi poojan ceremony in which Modi was assigned the key role was intended to convey the message that for the government – both executive (which Modi represents) and legislature – Hinduism and its associated rituals not only have a pride of place but some sort of official status as well. Bhoomi poojans with vedic rituals have happened before. – the foundation stone for the new Chhattisgarh assembly building recently witnessed a puja, Coconuts are routinely smashed and diyas lit at sarkari events. And politicians, including prime ministers, routinely make a public spectacle of their religiosity by visiting places of worship, and meditation. But never before has this kind of religious ritual played out at a high profile official event and never before has a prime minister performed this kind of role at an official government event. The only quasi precedent was set by Modi himself, when he officiated at the ground-breaking rituals at the Sangh parivar’s Ram temple in Ayodhya in August 2019.

The fact that a deliberate message was being sent is also evident from the fact that Modi actually had no business to be officiating at the parliament event. Article 79 of the Constitution of India, as many analysts have reminded us, says, “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the council of States and the House of the People.” By right, then, the three key individuals at the foundation laying ceremony should have been President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu (who chairs the Rajya Sabha) and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. Of these, conveniently, only Birla was present, but he too was brought in only at the fag end of the puja. 

The government’s decision to showcase the ‘diversity’ of India by focusing on different  religions was also aimed at reinforcing the central role that the BJP believes religious identity plays in New India. ‘India is a Hindu nation’, and once you are willing to accept that, you will be assigned your own corner. Instead, India’s regional or linguistic or cultural diversity could have been highlighted, especially in keeping with the federal nature of the polity but then it is harder to push majoritarianism through those axes. The priest king has his agenda, which is to so overwhelm Indians with religion and religious diversions that they will forget all the other aspects and problems of life. 

What makes  the building sites in Ayodhya and Lutyens’ Delhi so unique is that they are devoted not so much to construction as to demolition and destruction. A building was torn down in 1992 but it takes longer to dismantle and bury ideas and values. That process is now in full swing. 


Reportedly

Imprisoned journalist Siddique Kappan’s wife Raihanath fears that the Enforcement Directorate is cooking up charges against her husband to try and block his bail. Raihanath asks how the agency had concluded that a Popular Front of India leader had funded Siddique’s trip to Hathras in Uttar Pradesh, during which he was arrested on October 5. She feared Siddique might be entrapped in a money-laundering case, too.

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) has told the Supreme Court that Siddique, booked under sedition and anti-terror laws, is a Delhi-based journalist with the Malayalam news portal azhimukam.com and is not connected with the PFI. Kappan, 41, had told his office he was heading to Hathras to write a report on the brutal gang rape, murder and cover-up there. In any case, the PFI is not an illegal organisation.

Raihanath has impleaded herself in a habeas corpus petition filed in the Supreme Court by the KUWJ since Siddique’s whereabouts were not known after his arrest. Siddique had to wait 43 days to even speak to his lawyer.


When Pinky wed Rashid

Pinky, the 22-year old Hindu woman married to Rashid and three months pregnant, has deeply disappointed the UP Police by saying that she is a major and leaving with her husband’s family. The police had jailed Rashid and sent Pinky to a home, alleging forcible conversion by marriage ― UP’s biggest concern at the moment. News that the first woman arrested under the regressive and unconstitutional ‘love jihad’ law had reportedly been forced to miscarry was published by the Telegraph in the UK. The UP authorities deny Pinky has miscarried, though the woman has confirmed she had a miscarriage.


Prime Number: 10%
India’s overall joblessness rate has climbed to almost 10% in the week ended 13 December, at least a 23-week high. The urban unemployment rate touched 11.62% in the same week against the 8.15% recorded in the previous week, according to data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). The rate of rural joblessness also climbed to 9.11% in the week ending 13 December, against the 8.56% reported in the previous week, recording a consecutive growth in joblessness in the past four weeks.

October wasn’t a great month, notes CMIE. It ended with job losses and nearly 95% of households reporting shrinking of real income. But November has just made it much worse. About 35 lakh salaried jobs were lost in October. Sentiment is so low that 50 lakh workers have vanished from the job market. Employment and unemployment are both down, with serious social consequences. On Sunday, The Economist again reminded the world that India’s top 1% own 39% of India’s wealth, much more than in America or China. 

UP clean chit to BJP MLA

The Supreme Court on Monday castigated the Uttar Pradesh police for giving a clean chit to BJP MLA Sushil Singh in the murder investigation of BSP leader Ram Bihari Chaubey in 2015 in Varanasi, saying the investigation and closure report were “extremely casual and perfunctory in nature”. A three-judge bench presided over by Justice Rohinton Nariman set aside the closure report, after dismissing the investigation as a sham, designed to conceal rather than to uncover.  

The court appointed senior IPS officer Satyarth Anirudh Pankaj to investigate the matter further with a team of competent officers, to be selected by him. The apex court decided to supervise the matter after giving two months to complete the probe.


Deep Dive

Tipu Sultan’s rockets

With the death of Padmabhushan Roddam Narasimha, 87, India has lost one of its finest aerospace scientists. Of deep interest was his work on military rockets developed by Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Tipu harassed the British with the world’s first iron-cased rockets, launched by a corps that numbered about 5,000. The Mysorean Rocket, which brought science to warfare, caused havoc during the Anglo-Mysore wars. In an essay in Nature, R Narasimha wrote that while tech buff Tipu could give Wellesley’s troops a shock, social forces prevented him from starting a scientific revolution in Mysore.


New Parliament building planned but no Winter Session

In a letter to the Congress leader in the Lok Sabha, Parliamentary minister Pralhad Joshi has confirmed that there will be no winter session. There would be a budget session in January, he says, but none now. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had asked for a session to discuss major problems plaguing India but the government said ‘nay’, citing the pandemic. Too much democracy, perhaps?


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • How did slums survive during the lockdown? Adam Auerbach and Tariq Thachil write that the pandemic has shown that slums need sustained engagement between crises.

  • One of the main messages of the worrisome NFHS-5 data is that the basic determinants of malnutrition – household food security, access to basic health services and equitable gender relations – cannot be ignored any longer, writes Dipa Sinha

  • Jayati Ghosh writes on the growing urgency to regulate Big Tech in the US and EU. It’s a wake-up call for Indians, who must realise that antitrust regulation and public control over digital companies are essential.

  • Narendra Modi ought to realise that democracy is not about oratorical skills. It requires the profound art of listening — and mindful listening ― to one’s ideological opponents, or even to those who have lost electorally, avers Avijit Pathak.

  • In an interview with TK Rajalakshmi, Jagmohan Singh, member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee, says: “This Prime Minister lies like nobody else.”

  • Never forget how elephants have been treated. Indian approaches saw the State and local producers making spaces for nature. Chinese State-building meant the annihilation of animals seen as adversaries to economic growth and the consolidation of political authority. Mahesh Rangarajan takes a critical look at this case of contrasting histories.

  • The farmers are showing how wrong we all were in our pessimism, says Amit Bhaduri, for things change, but not always in the way a few plutocrats and their minions want, if ordinary people unite with all their frailties and force Opposition parties to unite, too. 

  • Sockpuppet news channels have been calling the agitating farmers names and now, Union ministers seem to be certain that the agitation has been hijacked by the ‘tukde-tukde’ gang, and separatist and anti-national forces. Paternalistic condescension and dirty tricks can only radicalise harmless protesters who celebrate the agitation as an idealistic pilgrimage for a common cause, says today’s editorial in The Tribune.


Listen up

‘Anti-national’ seems to have become an umbrella term covering all sorts of dissenters – protesting students, writers, journalists, separatists, anti-CAA protesters, and even someone reading the Preamble to the Constitution. But what does nationalism really mean in the Indian context? How is it different from patriotism? Shashi Tharoor speaks to Sandip Roy about nationalism, patriotism, and what it means to be Indian.


Watch Out

A taste of the protest music on the menu as farmers from Rajasthan and Haryana weigh in on the Delhi border and ask tough questions – set to a tune.


The longest walk, and the longest quarrel in print

A man from Tamil Nadu who was reported missing eight years ago after going on a pilgrimage was found wandering in a remote village in Nagaland and sent back home to Pudukkottai district. During the nationwide lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kumaravel may have walked for months and ended up in Nagaland.

Master storyteller and perfect spy John Le Carré, who has died, and Salman Rushdie had called a kind of truce after a 15-year feud maintained in the letters columns of The Guardian. The fight had its roots in le Carré’s criticism of The Satanic Verses: “My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Rushdie had then attacked him when Le Carre was accused of antisemitism. A truce was called in 2012. 


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.